Marc Chagall

I’ve been sending friends notecards with reproductions of Chagall works on them, which led me to descriptions of his work, which seem to invariably highlight his position as a Jewish artist (and as an early modernist). After a while, I began to be annoyed by this focus, which struck me as diminishing his significance by placing him in the context of Jewish art.

Here, for example, is material from the digitaal museum site:

Marc Chagall (6 July 1887 – 28 March 1985), was a Russian-French Jewish artist associated with several major artistic styles and one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He was an early modernist, and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists.” For decades, he “had also been respected as the world’s preeminent Jewish artist.”

… He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris, where “he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism.” Yet throughout these phases of his style “he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.”

Two examples of his paintings, with their many surrealistic, fantastical details: one set in Paris:

and one in a Vitebsk-of-the-mind:

Now it’s completely reasonable to stress the significance of Vitebsk and Jewish life in his work (though I note that in addition to his famous “Jerusalem windows”, he designed major stained glass windows in several Christian churches), but this persistent reference to him as a preeminent, major, etc. Jewish artist seems to me to set him aside in a special category. It’s as if Vermeer were reflexively referred to as the preeminent artist of Dutch domestic life, or Monet as a major painter of haystacks, waterlilies, and cathedrals — or, worse, Picasso as a great masculine painter (though his masculinity plays a central role in a great many of his paintings).

I am reminded of the Roman Jacobson letter-of-recommendation story I told here a few months ago (here). Roman wrote glowing letters, with best and greatest and the like deployed throughout — but there was always a reference class, which could be huge or tiny. The question was, best or greatest of what?

I’d like to think that Chagall was a great artist, period. And also an entry into a world most people would not know first-hand. But then every writer and figurative artist provides that.

Then in the Economist on 7/21/11, a letter from George W. Meyn (of Cardiff, Maryland) on a different but related subject, under the heading “State the obvious”:

SIR – Referring to James Baldwin as “a gay American civil-rights writer” (“Prince of the absurd”, July 9th) is like referring to Bob Dylan as “a Jewish-American folk-song singer”.

Some people, reading this, objected that, well, James Baldwin was gay, an American, and (in some sense) a civil-rights writer, wasn’t he, so why the fuss? (Let’s concede that all three things were important to him personally and to his writing. But note that the Economist chose not to refer directly to Baldwin’s race, though that was indisputably central to the man and his work; I would have expected black or African-American rather than civil-rights writer.)

The question is why certain descriptors are chosen in these compressed references to people, and the answer is that the writer considers these to be the most relevant characteristics of the person — most relevant in the writer’s mind and in the writer’s estimation of the readers’ minds. Those are judgments you might reasonably take issue with.

But then what do I know? I’m a gay Californian morphosyntactician, sociolinguist, and Sacred Harp singer.

(And for the record, just because I once studied with Noam Chomsky doesn’t make me a “Chomskyan”, as so many people seem to think.)

4 Responses to “Marc Chagall”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Arne Adolfsen on Facebook:

    And so it goes. “‘A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,’ [Edward] Albee said. ‘I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.'”

    Of course it’s the asymmetry, the assumption of special case vs. general case (or figure vs. ground), that’s the problem. Imagine Nicholson Baker saying, “I am not a straight writer. I am a writer who happens to be straight.”

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From mae sander in e-mail:

    I find your post on Chagall very interesting, because I have been trying to figure out what makes a writer/artist/whatever reasonably be described as “Jewish.” It’s an obsessive topic since sometimes the motive for such identification is a classifier’s pride (or excessive pride) in being Jewish, sometimes it’s due to a writer (maybe a different writer)’s theory about Jews as something-or-other, and sometimes it’s purely antisemitic. Along these lines, Apple in France just had to pull an app that was called “Jew or not Jew.” (link).

    I think your two examples of Chagall paintings are suggestive, since the one that seems to be set in Paris because it shows the Eiffel Tower also has an explicit Jewish image, the wedding canopy left of the main bride & groom figures. The one with the village, in contrast, may not have explicit Jewish imagery. Many other Chagall paintings also have explicit Jewish subjects, and he had a strong Jewish identity though not religiously (per his autobiography). But as you point out, that might not be the right way to decide if he should be called a “Jewish” painter, and relegated to a perhaps inferior status than if he were just called a “great” or “greatest” painter. In fact, in some contexts, the label “Jewish” might be stigmatizing and diminishing of him as an artist.

    You said: “The question is why certain descriptors are chosen in these compressed references to people, and the answer is that the writer considers these to be the most relevant characteristics of the person — most relevant in the writer’s mind and in the writer’s estimation of the readers’ minds. Those are judgments you might reasonably take issue with.”

    I agree, but I think that another important question is how the artist views his own identity. When there are questions about identity or identity politics, then the issue gets kind of muddled — so the example of calling Bob Dylan a “Jewish” folksinger is kind of unhelpful, since he clearly did not view himself as Jewish at all, he seems to have left that part of his identity behind along with his birth name, while the descriptors for Baldwin were at least ones that he considered important if I’m not mistaken.

    In sum, I think the question of Jewish identification is broader. I have been grappling with this question in my blog (link) in which I have tried to understand the self-identification of many secular Jews — for whom the ID isn’t religious, but may still be powerful, and to understand other things about secular Jewish identity. Your question about this identification of Chagall — does it diminish his status as an artist in the general sense? — is thus very interesting to me.

  3. Benjamin Lukoff Says:

    Regarding Baldwin and Dylan, I think the fact is Dylan is far better known than Baldwin. If it were the reverse, we might very well indeed be referring to Dylan as a Jewish-American folk singer, and to Baldwin simply as Baldwin.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, the choice of Baldwin and Dylan (not my choice) is decidedly imperfect, since Dylan is so much better-known than Baldwin. Given that, “Bob Dylan” should suffice for an identification, as should “American writer James Baldwin” (unless his race and sexuality were especially relevant in the context).

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